The recent flash flooding resulting from Hurricane Ida and other torrential summer storms around the nation has come as something of a wake-up call for homeowners and local governments alike. The real-world effects of climate change are upon us, even in areas where such events were rare before—if they occurred at all—and certainly in places like New York City, where the destruction of Hurricane Sandy back in 2012 arguably marked the start of an era of more frequent, much more intense inclement weather events.
The potential for flash flooding in urban environments has raised a particular concern for co-op and condominium owners in buildings or associations where there are units at or below grade. Such units are more common than you may think; smaller associations and corporations that occupy brownstone or other low-rise-type buildings often have ground-floor or semi-subterranean garden units. They’re also common in neighborhoods—such as Washington Heights in upper Manhattan, for example—where the natural topography means that large numbers of ground floor units are partially subterranean.
“There are certain neighborhoods and types of buildings that have more subterranean or partially subterranean units than others,” says Nicole Beauchamp, an agent with Engel & Volkers, a real estate brokerage company located in Manhattan. “Often these units are in buildings and neighborhoods that wouldn’t necessarily come to mind, including Washington Heights and Beekman Place. Lobby-level apartments are frequently under sidewalk level.”
A generation ago, that would be a non-issue, Beauchamp continues. “When [these buildings were] originally constructed or converted to co-op or condo ownership, there wasn’t extreme weather or major flooding to worry about, so little thought was given to this problem. We have never seen before what we have seen over the last couple of years. We didn’t know we needed to be prepared to make accommodations for this; there were lots of discussions, but nothing was implemented, because it didn’t feel urgent.”
Beauchamp goes on to say that “for a co-op or condo, this problem is similar to capital improvement projects. We can’t put off addressing them the way we did in the past. From the perspective of a board, the question is, ‘What can we do to prevent a disaster? Who do we bring in to do the work, and how do we pay for it?’ A likely concern for boards is the possibility of a maintenance increase or special assessment resulting from a flooding incident, so they should consider a financial plan to address the problem.”